#UX101: A (brief) history of user experience

What we now call “user experience design” began a lot longer ago than many people realize. In fact, you can trace UX design WAY, WAY back… all the way to when humans created the first tools. A tool in its most basic form is an object that supports the accomplishment of a task, and tools that are well suited to the job at hand makes our lives better.

In a way, UX design is about creating that “right tool for the right job”, so in that respect the human race has been “doing” UX design for thousands of years… they just weren’t  documenting the design process and principles (most of the time).

I say most of the time because, while the Greeks documented many different design principles in the 5th century, the idea of an active UX process and practice didn’t occur until fairly recently.

That “fairly recent” moment took place over a sixty years ago, when engineers started looking at “human factors” when designing equipment to fight World War 2. The term “ergonomics” was popularized after the war, when british psychologist Hywel Murrel founded the Ergonomics Society in 1949 to evaluate the lessons learned during the war effort.

Soon, the field of human factors was formalized, and engineers started identifying best practices around how humans interact with physical objects (to inform the design or redesign efforts). As you may have noticed, I went from using the term “human factors” to “ergonomics” and back again – Why? Because the two terms are pretty much synonymous (though many practitioners prefer one over the other). As the domain grew, another domain sprung out of it: Industrial design, with practitioners focused on the practical application of ergonomic principles in the creation of hardware and consumer products.

With the computer age many human factors professionals turned their focus towards software design, at the same time many technical and software engineers were setting their own standards and creating computer “UIs”… and the user experience discipline, as we now know it, truly began.

Today, User Experience is still a fairly “young” discipline, but over the past decade numerous companies around the world have seen first-hand the benefits of UX design. As a result, demand for UX professionals has exploded. As of the time of this writing, there are over 15000 job openings for UX professionals on LinkedIn alone and that’s during a struggling economy. If you want to be a UX professional (and I assume you are since you are reading this), the future looks bright.

The “founding fathers” of UX

There’s an old saying that “success has many parents, and failure is an orphan” and that is certainly true when it comes to the user experience field. Many different people helped shape the discipline over the past sixty (plus) years, and here are some of them (in chronological order).  Most are published authors and speakers, and I urge you to see out their work to learn more.

Some names you may know, and others may surprise you…

Paul Fitts

One of the founding fathers of Ergonomics, his famous “Fitt’s Law” (which predicts the time required to rapidly move to a target area, such as a button or control) is still in use today. Fitts was a psychologist who later served in the Air Force, where his work redesigning cockpits did a lot to improve aviation safety.

Dieter Rams

One of the most influential industrial designers of the 20th century, Rams created multiple products for the Braun Company in the 1950s and 1960s. His 10 principles of good design, summarized by the phrase “Less, but better”, are still relevant today (and are good guidelines when designing hardware or software).

Walt Disney

Yes, THE Walt Disney. When he envisioned and built the world’s first “immersive experience” – Disneyland – it involved a tremendous amount of “user-centered design” long before the term was even defined. His pioneering integration of technology and robotics to craft interactive encounters and rides laid the groundwork for much of what we consider “virtual reality” today, and I consider at his “Imagineers” as one of the first UX teams.

Don Norman

His seminal work The Design of Everyday Things, released in 1982, was one of the first popular books on “user experience”, and Norman was the man who coined the term. With a background in cognitive psychology, Norman championed the idea that objects and software should be designed and aligned to user’s needs… hence, UX or “user-centered design.” Norman is still an outspoken supporter of UX at the age of 77.

Alan Cooper

Not only did Alan Cooper create Visual Basic, he was one of the earliest innovators in user experience design. Cooper founded one of the first interactive design agencies (named, appropriately enough, Cooper) and was an early advocate of the use of personas in design. His book About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design is one of the “core” books that should be in every UX’ers library.

Edward Tufte

While he wasn’t the first professional to focus on “information design” (the presentation of complex data in an easy to understand way), he is the most famous figure in the domain. Tufte has written numerous books on the topic (his first was The Visual Display of Quantitative Information in 1982). He has consulted with numerous countries and governments and his books are key sources if you want to know more about creating effective visualizations and infographics.

Jakob Nielsen

The “Father of Usability,” Jakob Nielsen was an engineer at Sun Microsystems when he defined some of the first formal design standards around web usability. He is a pioneer in the user testing and research discipline. He has some critics, who disagree with some of his opinions (most famously, he has stated that visual design in a UI is not that important). He holds a Ph.D. in human–computer interaction from the Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen.

If you ever see him at a design conference, you will probably see him debating about eye-tracking software with…

Jared Spool

A peer of Nielsen, Spool founded User Interface Engineering and started looking at web design and usability long before the term was popularized. Spool consults with dozens of companies, has authored several books and is an extremely entertaining speaker if you ever get a chance to see him.

Steve Jobs

The co-founder and former CEO of Apple. The late Steve Jobs was not a UX professional per se, but under his direction Apple produced many “user-centered” products the past twenty years, to great success. Apple is case study #1 for UX professionals who need to demonstrate to skeptical stakeholders why user-centered design “just works.”

Other notable figures

The following are all “thought leaders” in UX, and most of them are published authors or frequent bloggers (or both). I recommend that you check out their work:

Bill Moggridge, Jesse James Garrett, Peter Morville, Whitney Hess, Kim Goodwin, Steve Krug, Indi Young, Bill Buxton

Next time: A high-level look at the UX Design process

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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